Rallying: Raiders of the lost art: Jeremy Hart reports from Peking on the future of individualism in rallying

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IT COSTS on average pounds 20,000 for each of the 400 competitors in the Paris-Peking Rally which finished here on Sunday to partake in the ultimate motoring madness for a month.

Drivers and riders in machines ranging from 15-ton trucks to flimsy motorbikes have blown inheritances, doubled mortgages and twisted the arms of sponsors so that they could take park in the longest motor rally in recent history.

Feeling sorry for those who go in for rally raids - like Carlo Torri, an Italian motorcyclist whose dreams of adventures on Russian steppes and Chinese deserts were ended when his Moto Guzzi failed on the first day - is hard. No one forces them to do it, but when the likes of Torri are competing against works teams like Yamaha some sympathy is inevitable.

A concept designed by and for the madcap amateur wanting a bit of adventure instead of an Alka Seltzer every morning of his holiday has become a pounds 100m industry with two sporting classes, the rich and the poor. With hours separating the likes of Citroen and Rothmans- Mitsubishi from even the semi-works teams. It is as if two races were being held in one.

Without the two big teams, rallies like the Paris-Peking and the Paris-Cape Town would receive minimal coverage. Rarely do the privateers get mentions, unless they are famous, weird or dead. It is a hard fact of life and an unhealthy one for the future of rally raids.

However, reform is likely soon. A French anti-tobacco campaigner has won damages of pounds 200,000 a day for each day of the rally against Citroen and Sonauto (the French importer of Mitsubishi) for illegal tobacco advertising on French television. Both teams are funded in part by cigarette companies.

Should the French court's ruling be upheld in an appeal soon to be heard, it might drive out two of the biggest sponsors in the sport. Although both Citroen and Mitsubishi have vowed to keep racing come what may, there is uncertainty about the future of both teams.

With no other major manufacturers on the horizon, the inevitable loss of one or both teams in the future will bring the sport almost back to its amateur adventurer origins.

While the major teams come and go, the effects further down the leader board have been positive. Rather than jumping in a rusting jalopy held together by Polyfilla and a prayer, the one- man bands are now preparing cars which would have won the Paris-Dakar rally at any time before the arrival on the scene of Porsche and Peugeot in the mid- Eighties.

A positive legacy for rally raids should be left when the works outfits depart - a formal world championship, encompassing shorter events like the Atlas Rally in Morocco, the Tunisia Rally, the Pharaohs Rally and some Middle Eastern races. That would provide incentive enough for the semi-works teams entered by local importers and allow privateers to take part in as many or as few rounds as they can afford.

'For the cost of doing the Paris-Peking, you could do three shorter events,' Bryant Hibbs, a professional off-road driver from San Diego, said. 'These long events are fine once in a while, but in the current economic climate they are unrealistic.'